Commentary

Standing pat is Celtics' best option

Unless Ainge is blown away, not worth breaking up core just for sake of change

Updated: February 21, 2013, 1:56 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

LOS ANGELES -- Full disclosure: I'm a numbers nerd; never met a hoops metric I didn't like. Not every aspect of basketball analysis should be based on statistics, but numbers are a helpful guide, particularly in confirming what the eyes see (or what they miss).

And here's the brutal truth for the Boston Celtics: Neither the numbers nor the eyes offer a particularly encouraging outlook for a team with championship goals. The odds of this team winning a title are long. Really long.

[+] EnlargePierce and Garnett
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiWill Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett still be Celtics two days from now? All signs point to yes.

According to John Hollinger's computerized playoff odds, the Celtics have a 2.3 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals and a measly 0.4 percent chance of hoisting another banner. You don't need any fancy metrics to realize that the title chances of any team plummet when they lose three rotation players -- including an All-Star point guard (Rajon Rondo) and a rookie rebound machine (Jared Sullinger) -- to season-ending injuries in the span of three weeks.

The Celtics dipped to 28-25 after losing to Denver on Tuesday to open a five-game West Coast road trip. Boston is a virtual lock for the postseason (91 percent), but currently sits as a seventh seed with no assurance it will climb higher. The Celtics own a mere 5 percent chance of claiming the Atlantic Division title (not that that is a particular priority), but the odds of winning a title get a little longer the lower you are on the playoff totem pole.

The numbers for this team practically beg for Danny Ainge to look to the future. If Boston can't accomplish its title goals -- as those numbers seemingly suggest -- Ainge needs to give serious thought to trading veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for assets who could aid this team's title quest in future seasons when the likes of Rondo and Sullinger are back on the floor.

But Ainge's best move might just be to sit tight through Thursday's trade deadline. Forget what the numbers say: Standing pat is looking increasingly like the best option, particularly if no one is willing to mortgage their own future to aid Boston down the road.

Unless a contender is willing to forfeit a ransom, Ainge shouldn't relinquish the cornerstones of this era just because his team is a long shot. Nothing about this team has made a whole lot of sense this season. Maybe the finish will defy logic as well.

From what Ainge has maintained in recent days, no offer has come across his desk that has blown him away (and Garnett would have to sign off on any move, too, adding another obstacle to the overhaul course). Maybe Ainge is posturing when he says the team is unlikely to make a big splash at the deadline -- you know the old trick of walking away at the car dealership -- but there's no shame if the salesman doesn't come running after Ainge before he peels out of the lot.

"My first choice is always to try to win now, especially when you have unique players like KG and Paul," Ainge told reporters Tuesday in Denver. "That's always the best option. But the injuries have at least allowed me to ponder other possibilities. It's still going to be tough to convince me that's what we need to do."

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It'd be easier to navigate this stay-together route if Ainge had any semblance of remaining depth on his roster. Boston entered the preseason overflowing with talented bodies, but has been whittled thin. Even if Ainge was seeking a minor upgrade, it'd be nearly impossible to move a rotation player, as any deal would create a void elsewhere (Trading 101 states that moving one player for multiple assets rarely aids a team -- you always want the single most talented player in a deal).

So Ainge and his staff might just be better served to continue combing through China and D-League outposts in search of best available bodies to restore some depth for a late-season push. As rare as it has been to find gold after the waiver deadline, it looks like Boston's best option to supplement its roster.

Chances are that that alone won't aid Boston's odds moving forward. But the Celtics have often defied conventional logic in the Garnett era.

The worst thing you can be in the NBA is something better than mediocre. Teams get stuck in a vicious cycle of being playoff entrants, but never winning the top prize. Early exits and late-round draft picks are not a formula for sustained success. Teams either have to bottom out and land in the lottery to rebuild quickly, or flip their stars at just the right time in order to stay afloat by bringing in a new core of talent. Neither is a particularly exact science.

When the Big Three of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen was assembled, we were told it might only be a three-year window. This past summer, after Year 5, Garnett inked a three-year, $36 million extension and -- though few believe he will play out that entire pact -- it suggested Boston likely had at least two more seasons with this core (Pierce has one more partially guaranteed year on his deal after this season).

The oft-cited example is how Red Auerbach held onto Boston's original Big Three too long, watching them break down and slink into retirement rather than moving them late in their careers for younger assets. After watching Allen bolt to join a bitter rival this offseason, some will lament that Ainge might have already missed opportunities to get maximum trade-in value for this new Big Three. But it's a calculated risk, particularly given the inspired brand of basketball that Pierce and Garnett have displayed of late (maybe not so much on Tuesday).

[+] EnlargeCeltics Fans
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiThese Celtics fans in Denver want to see KG "live and die green."

The league has changed, and deals that maximize the late-career value of guys like Pierce and Garnett are simply not as attractive as they might have been a quarter century ago. Ainge has often noted that Boston values its veterans more than the rest of the league, and he won't take pennies on the dollars.

Should Ainge ponder the reported DeAndre Jordan/Eric Bledsoe package if the Clippers formally offered it? Absolutely. But it might be too many moving parts -- combined with a potential Pierce deal that would almost certainly have to accompany it -- to pull off by Thursday.

Ainge has to remain convinced that this team has absolutely no chance to compete for a title this season or beyond with its current core.

Maybe a slow start shouldn't completely discourage Boston from the idea of another strong finish. This team has familiar faces from the one that limped through much of the 2011-12 season, then pushed the eventual world champions to the brink.

Who in the Eastern Conference should scare Boston? The Rondo-less Celtics beat Miami and won eight of their last nine overall in a home-heavy schedule before the All-Star break. That's not to say they'd be the favorites in a seven-game series, but you have to believe this team would put up a fight against the defending champs.

After that, few teams will make the Celtics overwhelming underdogs in the East. New York Knicks? Indiana Pacers? Atlanta Hawks? The Celtics' playoff experience alone seemingly gives them the edge in those series. This is an unpredictable league, and as we saw last season when Derrick Rose went down for Chicago, a lot can happen to shift the balance of power on the playoff battlefield.

The numbers suggest that Ainge is foolish not to ponder the future and jump on any trade that could help this team maintain its competitiveness into the next iteration of its core (presumably a Rondo-led squad with young talent like Sullinger, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green). A cap-restricted team facing increased luxury-tax burdens has every reason to worry about what lies ahead and how it can sustain its success.

But maybe the future will just have to wait for the calm of the summer. In the meantime, Boston's core gets at least one more dance -- even if injuries forced some friends to exit the party.

Despite what the numbers say, there's an opportunity here -- and that alone shouldn't be undervalued. Maybe it's worth hitching the wagon to 35-year-old Pierce and 36-year-old Garnett yet again.

Maybe it's best to ignore all the daunting numbers and just focus on the continued quest for Banner 18.

Odds are it is Boston's best option this season.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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